Let Change Begin With Me

I believe that the only hope for humanity lies in the embrace of evidence-based thinking. Whether the subject is religion or science or politics or anything in between, an earnest desire to ascertain reality demands that we seek the best available evidence, acknowledge our biases, do our best to compensate for them, and be willing to adjust our worldview accordingly. This is necessary even (perhaps especially) when doing so is difficult – in other words, all the time.

Intellectual honesty is uncomfortable. Personal growth usually is too. It is easy to talk ourselves into believing that only others suffer the impairment of cognitive bias, or that we are otherwise exceptional and therefore exempt from the rules we expect others to follow. It feels good to be right and even better to be righteous, whereas admitting fallibility can be awkward, humiliating, or painful. But we must resist the siren song of comforting self-delusion and struggle, however clumsily, to reserve the highest standards for ourselves.

Moving beyond superstition and tribalism isn’t just about the satisfaction of being right: It’s about making the world a better place. It’s about clearing away the excuses and the ignorance that too often get in the way of seeing our common humanity, and finding our way to a more ethical, more moral, more productive society.

This is what I want for my child.

It is what all children deserve.

And so it starts with me.

The Virtueless Troll

Bill Maher compares the execrable Milo Yiannopoulos to the late Christopher Hitchens. No, seriously.

I admit I feel dreadful that I’m investing valuable time and neurons on the likes of the vile hominid Milo Yiannopoulos. However, following his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday and the inevitable pearl-clutching analysis that followed, my need to throw my own pearls into the fray outweighs my annoyance at needing to do so. So here are my two cents, for what little they’re worth, and I shall henceforth endeavor to not speak his name again. 

1. I’m so tired of the “the only reason Milo Yiannopoulos is so popular is that the Left opposes him so strongly” trope; it’s tired, facile, and intellectually lazy. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that Milo is popular because a lot of people agree with his views and like the fact that he’s utterly shameless and cruel. We really need to stop talking about the Right as if they’re either automatons or toddlers who can neither understand the reasons why they do what they do, nor be held accountable for doing it.
2. Every interview Yiannopoulos ever gives into perpetuity should start with “Why do you think it’s worse for a child rapist to be embarrassed than for a child to be raped?” and end with “Why do you think children who get raped are responsible for their rape?” There’s an awful lot of Milo-apologia that says “Let people hear from both sides & then decide for themselves what they think of him,” but that’s not possible when his hosts help him conceal this ugly aspect of his persona. Failure to remind the audience that this is the kind of “person” they’re dealing with is a failure of journalistic integrity at best, and a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts at worst.
3. That the Right has shackled the principle of free speech to this intellectually & morally bankrupt attention whore is not accidental. They’ve figured out how to portray any objection to Yiannopoulos on any grounds whatsoever as an assault on free speech and “evidence” that the Left is afraid of his ideas. In this manner they badger, bully, & shame their way into ever bigger platforms and ever more influential interlocutors, further legitimizing him and his views. He’s become a bludgeon to do the opposite of no-platforming, a kind of “forced-platforming” in which denying him access to any stage or declining to engage with him for any reason can be held up as just more proof that the Left are the real fascists.

4. Yiannopoulos is not the next Hitch. He’s not even the next Alex Jones.

On Punching Nazis

Image: Indiana Jones punches a nazi. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paramount Pictures

By now many of you have probably seen or heard about the nazi Richard Spencer (leader of the “alt-right”) getting sucker-punched while giving an interview amidst inauguration protests last Friday. There has since been much gnashing of teeth over whether some liberals have been too tepid in their condemnation of it, or whether self-styled free speech warriors are overstating the significance of the event, or whether an exception to non-violence should be made for nazis because – well, they’re fucking nazis. Anyway, I’ve grown sick and fucking tired of hearing about it and explaining my position in response to others’ opinions, so imma just rip off that band-aid and give my full opinion here and now and be done with it. 

1. Punching people for their ideas is wrong, even if their ideas are also wrong. In fact, unless it’s in response to a direct physical threat to you or your loved ones, punching anyone for any reason is wrong so just stop fucking punching people, okay?

2. We cede the moral high ground when we start employing double standards. I get it, Spencer is a nazi and nazis are really hard to feel sorry for. But what about people engaging in lawful protests or peaceful civil disobedience who get clocked by thugs in red MAGA hats?  When we express outrage over those, the Right will say “If you can punch our guys, we can punch yours” and they won’t be wrong. It’s self-defeating and intellectually dishonest to not hold ourselves to the same standards as our opponents. 

3. Richard Spencer is a scumbag piece of crap. Nazis are crap. The alt-right is crap. White supremacy, white nationalism, obsession with skin pigmentation – it’s all heinous, ridiculously stupid, evil crap. No conversation about Spencer’s assault should fail to emphasize that while he has the right to think and talk about his beliefs without the threat or fear of violence, his beliefs are crap. 

4. In a mythical world governed by cosmic poetic justice, where what we put out in the universe comes back to us, every nazi would deserve a sucker punch. Because really, if your whole identity revolves around trying to figure out how to expunge tens of millions of people from the earth or their homes based on something as arbitrary as skin pigmentation, then you are a horrible person. But we don’t live in that mythical world; we live in this one, governed by laws that must be applied equally to all, because they’re being enforced by fallible humans who will not always be equipped or motivated to distinguish the nazis from, say, the atheists or the apostates. 

5. Do not ask me to rend my garments with anguish over the undignified treatment of the nazi. His dignity is not my concern – and seeing as how he’s a fucking nazi it would seem his dignity isn’t a big concern for him either. Also, do not demand that I make this the defining issue of my generation or agree that it makes the short list. Or the long list. Do not insinuate that if I do not talk about this to the exclusion of all other issues I am tacitly endorsing it, because I’ve denounced Spencer’s assault repeatedly here & elsewhere.

Spencer’s right to free speech is as sacred as mine. Trying to silence him through violence is not ok. But I am under no obligation to hand him a platform and a megaphone to help him disseminate his repugnant ideas. 

Five Reasons Atheists Should Oppose Trump

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We’ve heard a lot since the election about how the Left needs to stop accusing Trump voters of being racist, that there were many other legitimate and complex reasons for supporting his candidacy, and that rather than accuse and assume, we should ask and listen.  I tried in good faith to do this with my last post, addressing it to the Trump supporters who claim to have been motivated by concerns other than racial animus, and I received two whole responses, both of which more or less said “LIBTARD!”

Where, then, are these thoughtful, intellectually defensible arguments in support of a Trump presidency?  I submit they can be found in the same place as Yahweh, the Easter Bunny, and unicorns: In the imaginations of their believers.  The rationale for supporting Trump as an atheist activist is even less coherent.  If anything, the atheist community should be decisively opposed to the incoming regime for at least five reasons.

1. Trump has packed his administration with religious zealots who are openly anti-science and anti-secularism.

Climate change denial? Check. Creationism? Yup. Diverting public funds to Christian schools to “advance God’s kingdom?” Of course. Linking vaccines with autism? Goes without saying.  Religion-based discrimination? Bring it on.  The President Elect and his merry band of close advisors are uniformly on the wrong side of all of these issues – that is to say, they are on the side in opposition to the scientific evidence and consensus, as well as constitutional norms.  Vice President Elect Mike Pence once opposed funding for AIDS research in favor of programs that pray away the gay.  Secretary of Energy nominee Rick Perry’s policy response to drought when he was governor of Texas was to tell residents to pray.  Anyone who claims to value science, evidence, and secularism should be alarmed by these appointments.

2. Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate will be packing the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, with conservative judges who are sympathetic to Christianity and likely to hold a broad view of what constitutes “religious liberty.”

Trump has repeatedly promised to appoint Supreme Court judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade.  But SCOTUS isn’t the only windfall for the forced-birth crowd: Trump will have the opportunity to appoint dozens of judges to the federal bench all over the country, and based on his list of SCOTUS potentials, all of them are likely to share the same hostility to reproductive freedom and will thus be enthusiastically approved by the GOP-controlled Senate.  State legislatures, emboldened by the demise of Roe and a federal bench warm to Religious LibertyTM, will begin restricting access to contraception by giving employers more and more leeway to deny insurance coverage for it on religious grounds and permission to fire workers who are using birth control or become pregnant.  Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses and state houses will be deemed “traditional” rather than religious and be allowed to remain, thus signaling all non-Christians of the inherent bias against them in both the making and the upholding of laws.  Marriage equality will be undermined or overturned, and when the courts uphold the First Amendment Defense Act (which Trump has promised to sign), discrimination against LGBT people – and really, anyone else to whom a so-called Christian business owner objects – will be fully legal and constitutional.  The wall of separation under Trump will be weakened or obliterated.

3. Trump’s open hostility towards the press and his history of retribution against critics suggest he is ambivalent towards free expression.

It is curious to see so many self-proclaimed free speech advocates supporting a man who just a few weeks ago declared that burning an American flag should result in a year in jail and loss of US citizenship and who has not had a press conference since July 27 of last year.  Granted, Trump’s flag-burning statement was so ludicrously anti-constitutional that one’s instinct was to simply laugh it off with a shake of the head and an “as if.”  But that laughter quickly turned to bile upon remembering that this came from the man who is about to move into the Oval Office.  Did he really not know that flag-burning is constitutionally protected speech? Or did he know but thinks it should not be?  And how unsettling is it that we even have to ask these questions?

Almost as troubling is Trump’s decades-long record of ruthlessly going after those he perceives as having criticized him, a trait which has not abated in the slightest since his election.  It’s bad enough when the person trying to run you into the ground for a bad restaurant review is a rich mogul with a thin skin.  When that person is the most powerful human being on earth with the entirety of the Justice Department, the military, and the rest of the United States government infrastructure at his disposal (not to mention perhaps the Russian one), a chilling effect on frank discussion and criticism is inevitable.  This should be unnerving to us as citizens and downright outrageous to us as atheist activists; weakening the grip of superstition and destigmatizing atheism are predicated on our ability to criticize, satirize, mock, dismantle, and otherwise not defer to the closely held beliefs of others regardless of whose sensibilities we may offend.  A climate in which public figures, journalists, and ordinary citizens are reluctant to challenge those in power for fear of the repercussions ought to be the New Atheist’s and Free Speech Warrior’s worst nightmare.

4. A registry of Muslims is not very far removed from a registry for atheists.

Admittedly, the Trump transition team has been unclear on what kind of registry they are proposing.  Some claim it would simply be a registry of immigrants from majority Muslim nations, or nations with known terrorist activity.  On the other hand, when Trump surrogates cite the World War II internment of American citizens of Japanese descent as a precedent, it is reasonable to question just how limited a Muslim registry would really be.  Remember too that despite what we hear about “islamophobia,” religiously motivated hate crimes against Jews outnumber those against Muslims three-to-one, and the newly emboldened (thanks, PEOTUS!) white nationalist movement is already turning up the heat on American Jews.  In this climate of singling out and marginalizing American citizens from religious minorities, and given that polls consistently show atheists effectively tied with Muslims as the most disliked group of all, as well as the common belief among religionists that godlessness is the root of all evil, is it really that hard to imagine repercussions for non-believers?  Even if not in the form of a registry, the systematic collection of information on groups and individuals based on their perceived subversiveness is not outside the realm of possibility.  Either way, there is no reason to think that the persecution of religious minorities will start and end with Muslims.

5. Trump represents the antithesis of humanist values.

Yes, I know that not all atheists identify as humanists, and not all humanists are atheists.  Humanism is, however, often used as a loose synonym for atheism, and it is at the very least a common theme among nonbelievers that humans are not the filthy, pitiful sinners that theology asserts, and that people have inherent worth independent of the approval of an omnipotent creator.  Add in such values as kindness, generosity, humility, willingness to seek evidence and admit error, and support for universal human rights and you’ve got yourself a pretty good description of a humanist irrespective of religious belief.  Can you think of any list of honest Trump adjectives that includes the words kind, generous, humble, or willingness to admit error?

Ten Questions for Trump Voters that have Nothing to Do with Race

donald-trump

I am getting a little tired of hearing Trump apologists admonish liberals and leftists for the perpetual charges of racism against the President Elect, his closest advisors, and especially his supporters among the electorate.  “Just because he is a racist doesn’t mean everyone who voted for him is a racist!” they cry.  “Your constant accusations of racism are why he was elected in the first place!”  I will address the ludicrous latter half of that claim at another time, but for now, let’s perform a little thought experiment:  Let’s assume that Trump is not racist at all, that he has not appointed known white nationalists to his cabinet, and that exploiting racial tensions was never a part of his campaign in any way.  I’ll grant you that concession.  In return, I would like answers the following questions, with only two conditions: You cannot refer to Hillary Clinton at all; and you cannot deny that the questions are based on proven, verified, undisputed facts.

  1. Are you troubled by the fact that Russia orchestrated the DNC email hacking to influence the election and that the Trump team was in contact with the Russian government throughout the campaign? If not, why not?
  2. Are you concerned about the historically unprecedented conflict of interest caused by Trump’s refusal to divest himself of his assets, or that he and his family have already used the office of the Presidency to promote their various business interests (such as here, here, here, here, and here)? If not, why not?
  3. Do you think that Mike Flynn, who is at this very moment being paid to lobby Congress on behalf of the Turkish government, might have a resulting conflict of interest with respect to policy and national security matters relating to Turkey? If so, does that bother you? If not, why not?
  4. What benefit do you see for our national security and our global moral authority in violating international law to torture terror suspects and execute their families?
  5. Do you think it is appropriate and safe for Trump to be speaking to foreign leaders on an unsecured personal cell phone?
  6. Does Trump’s use of Twitter to lament being lampooned on Saturday Night Live and demanding apologies from Hamilton theater-goers for booing Mike Pence fit your definition of presidential behavior, and does it accurately reflect what you think his priorities should be?
  7. Is it acceptable to you that Trump lied outright by saying he had personally prevented a Ford plant from moving to Mexico when Ford has confirmed that there was never any such plan? If so, why?
  8. What benefit do you see for our national security in Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons?
  9. Given that Trump’s surrogates have confirmed intentions to move forward with mass deportations and the construction of a wall along our southern border as early as day one of his administration, how do you think those projects will be paid for, and do you agree that they represent the best use of tax dollars?
  10. Do you support a national registry of American citizens based on religious affiliation? Does your answer change based on which religion is in question?

 Now that Trump has appointed advisors like Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, it seems almost a moot question whether Trump himself is racist, as he is surrounding himself with people who have undeniably racist histories and agendas, and these people will have at least some influence on policy.  But even if they did not exist, Trump the candidate had what should have been fatal flaws – flaws which now belong to the President Elect of the United States.  If people are tired of defending themselves and their candidate from charges of racism, I for one am willing to hit the pause button on those (well founded and very serious) concerns to give them the opportunity to explain why Trump was in any conceivable other way an acceptable choice to run the free world.

Religion in the Rear View Mirror

“There are some things about having a secular lifestyle I wish were easier. My son is now eight years old. He has friends, and he loves science and reading. I am very proud of him. I wish he had some of the community that church provides. We do not live in a big city that can provide secular options to the group activities that church can provide. This is of course changing. Groups like the Sunday Assembly have moved toward being a church without the God-bits and have kids’ classes.

“Overall, it can still be an issue for many people who do not have groups like this in their area. Without belonging to a church, they lack community unless these groups exist for them. It is possible, however, that our society could be realizing that with fewer and fewer people attending churches, we need alternatives. By the time my son is my age, his kids may be going to an alternative place that supplies community in new and fantastic ways.

“Until then, I hope to provide him the tools to think critically. I feel a freedom having made a decision to call myself an atheist instead of staying on the fence. I can always incorporate new ideas. Being able to learn new ideas tells us that we are still alive. And maybe that is all we can truly know.” – Jackie Burgett

Basic RGB

Jackie Burgett is a single mother who was raised as a Christian. One of the focuses of her story is how she is raising her son in a secular environment. She is one of 22 authors who wrote an essay about her journey away from religion.

Karen L. Garst has compiled these essays into a book titled Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion, which can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Dr. Garst became incensed when the U. S. Supreme Court issued its 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which said that because of its owners’ religious views, the craft store chain Hobby Lobby would not be obligated to follow the dictates of the Affordable Care Act and provide certain forms of birth control to its employees. “Will we never end the fight for women’s reproductive rights?” Garst asked. Once again, religion has influenced the laws of our land. Politicians cite their religion in supporting restrictions on abortion, banning funding for Planned Parenthood, and a host of other issues that are against women.

The first leaders of the New Atheism movement that arose after 9/11 were men: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett being the most prominent. They came with backgrounds of science and philosophy. They launched a renewed effort to show people how destructive religion can be and how all Abrahamic religions are based upon an Iron Age mythology, borrowing from other mythologies of the time.

Dr. Garst wants to add a focus on women and the role this mythology has played in the culture of many countries to denigrate and subordinate women. She states that “Religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality.” And she is right. More and more women atheists are speaking out – and as we all know, if women leave, the churches will collapse.

She has received support with reviews by Richard Dawkins, Valerie Tarico, Peter Boghossian, Sikivu Hutchinson and other atheist authors.

I encourage you to check out Dr. Garst’s blog at www.faithlessfeminist.com and to pre-order this excellent book.

Eight Reasons Free Will Is Total Bullshit

 

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If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times: God is not responsible for the evil and suffering in the world; that is caused by humans’ misuse of their god-given free will!  Sentiments such as “Don’t blame god, blame your own bad choices!” and “God isn’t responsible for the bad things others do to you!” abound in Christian literature and online enclaves, and they seems to make so much sense to the people who claim it – but what makes sense to the theist mind is often nonsensical in any other context, and this is no exception.  Under even mild scrutiny, free will is shown to be nothing more than an apologetic sleight of hand, glorifying an ostensibly loving and powerful god while simultaneously placing dramatic limits on his benevolence and ability.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is total bullshit.

1. Free will is not a universally held belief among Christians. As is the case with virtually every other claim made by Christians (and, to be fair, followers of every other religion), free will is not only not accepted across all denominations and adherents of Christianity, it is rejected outright by many as false teaching. Some Christians believe that humans are slaves to sin and are not free to choose not to sin, and that since god is the author of evil, it must simply be accepted. As explained by the kind folks at christianfallacies.com, “evil is a part of God’s eternal plan as so many scriptures illustrate . . . Free will is not needed as an answer to deliver God from the charge of evil because evil is not a problem for God, but for man, and man is in no position to question God about its existence.”  The non-believer is then left to ask, as with all other contradictory statements about the intentions and nature of god, what makes one of these claims true and the other one false – a question that I have yet to see any theist answer.

2. Free will and predestination are mutually exclusive. The internet is laden with dime-store theology that declares loudly and unambiguously that whatever is happening at any given moment is exactly what god intends. Try as one might, it’s nigh impossible to find pithy memes and articles that say, “God had a plan for you to be happy, but Monsignor totally blindsided god by using his free will to sodomize you when you were a child, and that threw a wrench into the whole thing. Sucks being you!”  On the contrary, we are told that god would not have allowed Monsignor to rape you unless he had a purpose for it.  Furthermore, given that “god is directing each one of your steps,” and since that claim does not come with an asterisk clarifying that ‘your’ refers to ‘non-pedophiles only,’ then he had to be directing Monsignor’s steps too.  There’s no room in any of this for anyone’s free will.

3. Semantic hoops of fire to make a divine plan compatible with free will are disingenuous. To hear some tell it, god’s plan is really just an idea, a hope, like the plans people have for the weekend, which can be fouled by the free will of other humans who are either ignorant of or averse to our own desires. In this version of “god’s plan,” god has no way to either communicate the plan to humans or to make it happen – it’s all just sitting there in his head while he crosses his holy fingers that our guesswork will cause us to stumble more or less blindly into doing what he wants us to do. This, of course, is entirely intellectually dishonest, because we all know that when theists speak of God’s Plan™ they are ascribing a much greater degree of control and intentionality than this weak excuse allows.  One must also wonder what kind of mean-spirited fool this god would have to be to make a plan that he knows in advance isn’t going to pan out, or to not at least tell humanity what the plan is so that we have a better chance of using our free will in a way that comports with that plan.  This is not the behavior one would expect of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god – indeed, it is not even the behavior one would expect of a marginally competent middle manager.

4. Free will is never used as an explanation for positive outcomes. We only ever hear about the importance of free will in discussions of why god allows evil or suffering. You can read elaborate explanations here or here or here or here or in many other places that god just had to give us free will because golly, he didn’t want to make an army of robots!  He wanted humans to choose to love (read: enslaves themselves to) him!  Let’s set aside for the moment that an omnipotent god wouldn’t have to do anything (and an omniscient one surely could have come up with a way to make non-automatons who were nice to each other).  If humans are free to choose, doesn’t that mean that sometimes they choose to do good things?  Why do we exonerate god in this child’s suffering by blaming her parents’ use of their free will to abuse her, but credit god for blessing that child who is thriving, rather than ascribe his success to his parents’ use of their free will to lavish him with love and opportunity?  To hold any water at all, free will has to account for both the good and the bad choices that people make.

5. The concept of free will leads to acceptance of suffering as inevitable. “Humans are sinful, flawed, fallible. Of course some of them will use their free will in sinful, flawed, fallible ways. I know, it’s truly awful when children get raped, beaten, neglected, tortured, or murdered.  But oh well, what are you going to do?  That’s just the cost of god making us free beings.”  Which leads us to . . .

6. A god that allows misuse of free will to cause human suffering has the wrong priorities. Most crimes have not just a perpetrator, but a victim – perhaps many victims. Do the victims not have free will?  Surely they did not choose the circumstances that led to their suffering.  Surely they did not choose to suffer.  When the parish priest is sodomizing the altar boy, why does the priest’s free will choice to rape matter to god, but the child’s desire not to be raped does not?  A god who always favors the evil over the innocent can be nothing but evil.

7. Free will does not cause natural disasters. Even if free will was an acceptable explanation for human-caused suffering (which it isn’t), it doesn’t work for the suffering caused by wildfires, tsunamis, floods, landslides, earthquakes, drought, famine, or disease outbreaks. In fact, a great many evangelicals will confidently declare that god does, in fact, send natural disasters as punishment for human sinfulness, such as some claimed with regard to Hurricane Katrina.  Ironically, they do not seem to recognize that killing, maiming, and impoverishing tens of thousands of innocent people (not to mention the devastating cost to non-human animals and the overall ecosystem) as a means of punishing a handful of guilty people is as far away from just and loving as their god could get.  More to the point, it admits outright that a significant percentage of suffering has nothing whatsoever to do with free will, but is caused directly and on purpose by god.

8. Science indicates that the notion of free will in the biblical sense – individual agency to make choices entirely free of unconscious influences – does not exist. Advances in neuroscience have severely eroded the notion that humans can freely choose their behaviors. Our genes, brain chemistry, parents, geography, and life experiences shape everything from our sense of right and wrong to our intelligence to our emotions and everything in between.  This is not to say that we are automatons who cannot behave morally and ethically, but it does allow us to see human behavior in a different, perhaps more dispassionate light and over time may lead us to more effective strategies for dealing with things like mental illness, violent crime, and other complex and nuanced problems.  Once again, the space of ignorance so long occupied by god has been replaced by scientific knowledge, achieved through observation, empiricism, and evidence.

It’s remarkable to consider the armies of people throughout history who have devoted years, perhaps their entire lives, to figuring out how to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with the notion of a loving, perfect, and just god.  The intellectual capacity wasted on such a fruitless and absurd endeavor is as mind-boggling as it is tragic – one can only hope that humanity will one day realize that those things are in fact irreconcilable, and rather than devote their lives to understanding why god allows suffering, put that energy into alleviating it.